What does Science say about Religion?
A number of legitimate criticisms have been levied against different religious individuals. But are these criticisms accurate? Are these criticisms indicative of Religion, or are they just the faults within the individuals? Is Religion truly the cause?
Luckily, we can and have investigated these questions…
On Religion and Science
Are religious individuals anti-science? There are groups who don’t believe or are skeptical about some scientific theories like evolution. This anti-science cannot, however, be generalized to the whole of religious thought. In the famous Ecklund study, 40% of the scientists studied consider themselves to be religious, and it was found that belief and non-belief preceded scientific training. What this means is that, though not a simple majority, a large number of scientists are able to function as scientists while still holding religious beliefs. In addition, because belief preceded training indoctrination into science does not inherently challenge religious beliefs, and that becoming more scientific did not force a person to become less religious. Furthermore, many of our most noted scientists, such as Einstein, Newton, Darwin, etc. held religious beliefs, and were still able to excel in the field. This is because Religion and Science (as noted in Part II) are distinct fields, with clear boundaries. The ability to act as both a scientist and religious individual without contradiction is possible, a fact that has been noted by the national academy of sciences. Finally, most scientists, the people who actually know science, don’t believe there is an inherent conflict between science and religion. Science and Religion, therefore, are not antithetical to each other, nor are polar opposites on a scale, and do not inherently conflict, and in fact can co-exist quite amicably, with the real conflicts emerging from other spheres.
In addition, the denial of scientific evidence is not solely done by religious individuals. When people have a strong enough desire and investment in a belief, they will be prone to find ways to ignore contrary evidence, and over value supporting evidence. This is a well-known phenomenon known as confirmation bias. If you want to see it in a non-religion origin, try discussing the dangers of pornography or media violence. The dangers of pornography and media violence have been studied, but if you like your porn, Rambo, and GTA, chances are you will find any excuse to ignore the findings.
On Religion and mental health
Many people have claimed that religion is a form of psychopathology. Research has actually been done to determine if this is true. Rodney Clarke tried to find a connection between religion and psychopathology, only to find the relationship to be negative (greater religious practice was related to less pathology). Additional studies have shown that religious practice is related to better adjustment, mental health, and more resistance to stressors (note: atheism was not studied in these studies, so you cannot draw the contrary conclusion that atheism negatively effects mental health). Now it is true that many psychotic patients have religious ideations, and religions do contain a number of beliefs that conflict with more rational thought, but it the fact that both can exist with religion indicates that religion itself is not causal to pathology. Much of the pathology associated explained through the pathology preceding the ideation, and the understanding that non-rational beliefs not taken literally are not the same as irrational beliefs. Also, non-rational beliefs are not found solely in the domain of the religious, either. The religion bad/good and science v. religion debates are themselves loaded with logical fallacies like the reification fallacy, false dichotomy fallacy, and generalization fallacy. (for extra fun, read an online religion debate while playing Logical Fallacy Bingo)
On Religion and Violence
One of the most damning claims against religion is that is a cause of the war and violence in the world. We know about the crusades and inquisition. We hear the zealots calling for intolerance and violence aginst other groups. We remember slavery. Like the other claims, however, violence has been studied. The BBC’s War Audit and the book The Encyclopedia of Wars found that over the past (3500) years, very few wars could be directly attributed to completely religious causes. In addition, one of the tenants of communism was atheism, and though communist nations suppressed religion, they were no less violent than any other country. In fact, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zadong each killed more people than Hitler. In addition, many of our greatest peacemakers and social justice leaders have been extremely religious, such as Gandhi, MLK, The Dalai Lama, etc, and many religious texts include commandments like “though shalt not kill,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Non-violence is the heart of Buddhism,” all pointing to the potentiality of peace, along side of war, in religion.
Since war and atrocity occur whether or not religion is present, the actual causes of violence must come from other variables that occur with, but not exclusive to religion. And since extremely religious leaders can be extremely just and peaceful, such violence is not inherent in religion, and so other possible causes must be considered. The War audit, taking this into consideration points to “absolutionism” not the presence or absense of religion, as the causal factor in most world conflicts. Many point to religious justifications for war, oppression, and violence, but when it comes to moral reasoning, people decide first and justify later, so religion might have been used to justify, but it was not causal. Studies have been done on the causes of violence. Threats to the denial of our own death, both physical and symbolic, have been found to lead interpersonal violence. Religion gets tied up with this at times because it is one of the, but not the only, symbolic structures we use to deal with mortality. Other studies on what makes one human kill another, as outlined by David Grossman in On Killing, have been able to identify what drive men into combat. Men kill in war, for instance, due to a combination of the demands of authority, group dynamics that absolve them from the guilt of their crimes, and psychological distance from their victims (othering). The reason that religious groups can go to war and atheists can be just as brutal is that neither religion nor atheism causes the violence, rather it is the violent demands of leadership, the group dynamics, and othering that can occur in both groups.
On why religious groups go wrong
Despite the fact that religion is not inherently pathological, antithetical to science, and causal to violence, there are religious people who are clearly mentally ill, anti-science, and violent. Whether or not these are representative of religion, these individuals must be accounted for in any description of religion, for to leave out either the good or the bad side of religion horribly biases and compromises the validity of any consideration of religion. Gordon Allport studied this specific question, and developed his theory of religious motivation while studying why religion could have both so many benefits yet cause so much harm. What he found was that individuals who engage in religious activities for the sake of religious goals (intrinsic), such as personal development, developing relationships is others and a higher power, thanksgiving, etc, were the ones who saw the positive benefits and generally were nicer people. When people were motivated by more mundane goals (extrinsic), like social status, punishment avoidance, material reward, etc., the benefits disappeared, and the more problematic side of religion took its place. Combine this with the previously mentioned issue of the denia of death, you can see how motivation also affects violence: intrinsically motivated people use religion as a shield that, when threatened, can lead to violence, while intrinsically motivated people use religion to develop personal skills to overcome this fear.
Why do people differ in their motivations? First of all, abstract thinking develops in people after they are able to think concretely. Extrinsic thinking is very concrete, rule based, and comforting. Intrinsic thinking requires you to wrestle with abstract concepts and take risks with what you believe, risks that can lead to shame. To leave the extrinsic for the intrinsic means leaving a level of safety and comfort, and some people aren’t able to do that. In the extreme, this leads to the rigid pathologies blames on religion. When conducting interviews for my doctoral dissertation on psychology and religion, one psychologist noted how her experience with more conservative religious views often followed a need for an external system to organize their world, that their worldly traumas left them unable to abandon that structure and pursue the more interpretive and philosophical side of their religion. Second, pursuing the extrinsic is easier. Do you put the work in to develop your internal skills, or do you just compare yourself to others. Do you ask what your responsibilities are in your social relationships, or do you just scapegoat someone so you can bond based on a fabricated hatred? Finally, if one is pursuing religion for its extrinsic rewards, then those rewards can become too valuable. Intrinsic pursuit then becomes a question of how much reward are you willing to risk for intrinsic development. Some people are afraid to take that risk, while others are so blinded by the reward that they just don’t care about the intrinsic.